MUNICH — The Munich Security Conference convened this weekend under the banner of “Unlearning Helplessness.” The phrase had ominous echoes with Russia threatening Ukraine, and Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, drove them home by accusing the West of appeasement.
“It was here 15 years ago that Russia announced its intention to challenge global security,” Mr. Zelensky said on Saturday at the annual gathering of international policymakers. “What did the world say? Appeasement. Result? At least the annexation of Crimea and aggression against my state.”
The mood at the conference — the Davos of foreign affairs, a venue of often bracing conflict — was subdued, almost disembodied, marked by stunned nervousness over the possibility of a European war, diminished by harsh Covid-19 restrictions and missing the Russian participation that has often stirred vigorous debate.
The Russian no-show felt ominous, a symbol of a Europe newly divided. Annalena Baerbock, the German foreign minister, put the choice facing the continent starkly: either a “system of joint responsibility for security and peace” or “spheres of influence,” which she compared to the carve-up of Europe into Allied and Soviet spheres at Yalta in 1945.
With Russian separatists escalating artillery barrages in eastern Ukraine and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain accusing Moscow of planning “the biggest war in Europe since 1945,” Ms. Baerbock’s reference to Yalta did not seem misplaced.
Mr. Zelensky’s comments about the dangers of appeasement were an allusion to a menacing speech in Munich in 2007 by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, which revealed the extent of his revanchist ire against the United States. Of NATO expansion eastward Mr. Putin said then: “It represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: Against whom is this expansion intended?”
A year later in Bucharest, Romania, NATO leaders issued a summit declaration saying that Ukraine and Georgia, once part of the Soviet imperium, “will become members of NATO.” They did not say how or when because they did not know; and they could not agree on such details.
The die was cast. The clock has been ticking since then, with Mr. Putin taking enough military action in Georgia and Ukraine to freeze the countries in strategic limbo, as he awaited his moment to avenge the perceived humiliation of Russia by the West after the Cold War’s end.
That moment, he appears to judge, has come. Russia today is bolstered by a strong bond with China; Germany is under new leadership and the United States is weakened by internal fracture. Hence those 190,000 Russian troops, in the American estimate, at the Ukrainian border.
At the Munich Conference in 2015, Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, launched into an extraordinary diatribe against the West. Russia’s annexation of Crimea the previous year was in fact an uprising of people “invoking the right of self-determination,” he said. The United States was driven by an insatiable desire for global dominance and had orchestrated in Ukraine a “coup d’état” in 2014 that led to the ousting of President Viktor F. Yanukovych, a Russian proxy. Post-1989 Europe, Mr. Lavrov said, had shunned building a “common European house” from Lisbon to Vladivostok in favor of expanding NATO eastward to Russia’s doorstep.
People listened. The Russian fury was striking. But in the end most Western officials shrugged. Surely these were theatrical expressions of Moscow’s festering grievance rather than the first drumbeat of war.
Seven years later, nobody in Munich this weekend dismissed Mr. Putin’s apparent war preparations with, as Vice President Kamala Harris put it, the “foundation of European security under direct threat.”
What will Mr. Putin’s next move be? One consideration is China. It is opposed to NATO expansion and to “attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions,” as a joint Russian-Chinese communiqué put it this month. But Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China told the conference that “the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of any country should be respected and safeguarded.”
It felt like a pivotal 21st-century moment: China adjudicating a conflict between the United States and Russia.
Whether Mr. Putin will listen is another matter. He may feel confident, in the light of a friendship described this month in the two nations’ joint statement as having “no limits,” that any Chinese opposition to an invasion of Ukraine will be muted.
The United States has concluded that the Russian president has approved an invasion of Ukraine, with the capital, Kyiv, as the target, and that the probability is low that he will reverse course. Indeed, President Biden has so frequently warned of war that he has irritated Mr. Zelensky, who has seen his economy collapse without Russian soldiers crossing the border.
The inevitability of war was not a view shared by everyone at the conference. Robin Niblett, the director of Britain’s Chatham House, noted that Mr. Putin was normally “brutally measured,” and that a full-scale invasion would be out of character because of its high risk.
France, after another telephone conversation on Sunday between President Emmanuel Macron and Mr. Putin, said in a statement that the two leaders had agreed on the need “to privilege a diplomatic solution” and “do everything possible to achieve it.” A presidential communiqué spoke of an eventual summit meeting to “define a new order of peace and security in Europe.”
What that could mean, and whether it would in any form be acceptable to the United States and many of its allies, was unclear.
A core issue with which American officials grapple is whether they are dealing with specific, practical and negotiable demands from Russia. Or has Mr. Putin embraced a “theology” that has hardened and now holds that Ukraine must be part of a restored Russian empire, or at least part of its sphere of influence, and can never have a Western orientation or allegiance?
Where forces and weapons systems are positioned can be talked about, even eventually agreed upon. But a mystical Putin theology of Ukraine’s essential Russianness, and the need to bring it under Russian control, will not be accepted, as Vice President Harris made clear. The lesson of the rubble of 1945, she suggested, was that “the rule of law must be cherished” and “national borders not changed by force.”
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the Russian troop buildup had united NATO in its resolve because it threatened “the entire international order” based on principles “like you cannot exert a sphere of influence to subjugate neighbors to your will” and you cannot dictate to another country “with whom it will associate.”
As for Mr. Zelensky, he appeared deeply concerned that Ukraine would become a pawn in a great power game. “I hope no one thinks of Ukraine as a convenient and eternal buffer zone between the West and Russia. That will never happen,” he said.
To counter the temptation of appeasement, Mr. Zelensky urged the West to “effectively support Ukraine and its defense capabilities.” He said that Ukraine should be provided with “a clear European perspective” and that it needed “clear and comprehensive time frames for joining the alliance.”
Such a time frame, of course, would never be acceptable to Mr. Putin, who has escalated militarily to prevent just that. “The way Russia escalates is always militarily,” Mr. Niblett said.
That is one difference between it and Western democracies, which have made clear no Allied troops will be sent to die for Ukraine and have sought other means to deter Russia, notably through the threat of “massive sanctions.”
Appeasement, of course, is a word with a particular resonance in Munich, where in 1938 Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, agreed to allow Hitler to annex part of Czechoslovakia to “protect” ethnic Germans there, in exchange for a promise of peace. Mr. Chamberlain declared “peace in our time” on his return to London.
But nobody mentioned that at a conference whose mission has been to ensure that the lessons of the 20th century, and its two world wars, are learned.